Special Reports

The Green River Killer's living victims

As they apply to Gary Leon Ridgway, the journalistic terms "alleged" and "suspect" are mandatory, and yet they seem so strangely out of place.

As Ridgway waits in his King County jail cell to be charged with four counts of murder - or quite likely, aggravated murder - the presumption of innocence is difficult to maintain.

He is entitled to it. He cannot be called the Green River Killer - or any kind of murderer - for certain. Not yet. He is entitled to a fair trial - one that might have to be conducted far from King County to overcome the prejudical effect of pre-trial publicity.

Even King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, whose triumphant press-conference smile Friday belied his words, stops short of calling Ridgway the horrifically legendary Green River predator. There might be more than one killer in the case, Reichert cautioned.

But - there is that new DNA evidence, so scientifically grounded, so powerfully incriminating, that links Ridgway to the murders of four victims of the Green River killer nearly two decades ago.

For Ernest W. "Bill" McLean of Renton and Melvyn Foster of Olympia, that is good enough to lift a burden that both have carried for a long time. Like Ridgway himself, they were among several men publicly linked to the Green River case in the early years of the investigation.

Just as Ridgway became known among his co-workers as "Green River Gary," McLean endured workplace gibes of "Hey, Bill, kill any hookers today?" McLean came under suspicion because his movements as a fur trapper seemed to place him near many scenes where victims' bodies were found. Foster was identified as "a person of interest" because he frequently came into contact with prostitutes as a South King County taxi driver.

McLean won a measure of vindication with successful lawsuits against local media organizations. But he remains bitter about the doggedness with which Reichert pursued him. Foster, for his part, has found peace in retirement and now says he admires Reichert's tenacity.

McLean and Foster, however, aren't the only living victims of the Green River Killer. The 49 women officially listed as his victims left behind many times that number of relatives and friends who had come to think that the deaths would always remain a painful mystery.

Their ordeal isn't over. The relatives of the four women Ridgway is to be charged with killing must wait to see if he is convicted; if he is, it may be an even longer wait to see Ridgway face the ultimate punishment.

And there all the others, the friends and families of dozens of young women who disappeared in the nation's worst unsolved serial killing spree. They can only wait and watch as a suddenly reinvigorated and widening investigation searches for evidence linking Ridgway to more killings, including dozens of more recent slayings in Oregon and British Columbia.

The Green River Killer destroyed and diminished so many lives in ripples that widened far beyond South King County. Now we can hope that his story will have an ending, and that it will conclude with justice.